Why Speed Racer failed (and why Dragonball probably will too)

When I saw the trailers for Speed Racer first come out, I had mixed feelings about the movie. I thought the movie had promise, but I was unsure as to whether other people would think the same.

Live Action Cartoon

Perhaps being a fan of anime, I’m not automatically turned off by cartoonyish (is that a word?) movies (though I guess I wasn’t before I started watching anime, which is perhaps why it eventually appealed to me). However, movies which are shot in unusual or cartoon-like styles tend to not do well at the box office.

The three examples that come to my mind first are Starship Troopers, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

Starship Troopers was released in November 1997. Similarly to Speed Racer, Starship Troopers opened with only $22.1 million (about $28.9 million when adjusted for inflation). It started #1, but mostly because November isn’t exactly the biggest month for movies. In any case, it ended with $54.8 million ($71.8 million) domestically at the end of it’s run, finishing 35th for the year. Not terrible, but not necessarily near the $105 million ($137.5 million) it cost to make it.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen opened July 2003, so it’s situation is quite similar to Speed Racer‘s. It opened at #2 with only $23.1 million ($26.5 million today) and went on to make $66.5 million domestically ($76.2 million), putting it 44th for the year, again short of the $78 million ($89.5 million) that it cost to make it.

Sky Captain opened September 2004 at #1, but grossed only $15.6 million ($17.5 million today). It went on to make only $37.8 million domestically ($42.5 million), finishing 77th for the year and again, no where near the $70 million ($79 million) it cost to make.

We're gonna bomb!

There are some exceptions, of course. 300 would probably be the most recent, but the Tim Burton Batman movies are also included – though even those started going out of favor when they got too weird for people.

One of the lessons one might be able to bring from this is that audiences typically don’t like live-action movies that are cartoon-like, unless they shamelessly pander to their targeted audience (300) or are very well known before hand (Batman). Unfortunately for shows based on anime, none of them are going to draw in audiences by the popularity of it’s source material alone, and I’m not sure exactly how well you can pander to an audience while at the same time sticking to the source material very well (unless the source material itself does nothing but pander).

This seemingly gets us to the conclusion that if you want a movie that 1) actually has a story, and 2) whose source material isn’t already widely followed, then doing a movie in a cartoon-like style isn’t a good idea.

Perhaps related to their poor box-office performance, many of these movies seem to sacrifice story for the gimmick of looking the way they do, but I’m not sure that fully explains why they would get an atrocious opening weekend.

This (finally) leads me to what I’m trying to get at here: when adapting graphic novels, comic books, or anime into live-action, there seems to be a strong urge to adapt the cartoon into a movie instead of adapting the story into a movie.

One reason why I think the new Batman movies, Spiderman, Superman, and X-Men have largely been successful is that they adapted the story and not the comic. Yes, they all have cool special effects, but do you think X-Men would have been as well received as it was if Wolverine actually showed up on screen in his yellow and blue spandex? Probably not. Hardcore X-men fans may cry heresy for that not happening, but the people who made that movie knew that it was more important to turn it into a movie instead of into a live-action comic strip.

And to think I could have worn yellow and blue spandex

The same thing applies to adapting anime. When doing so, one needs to adapt the story into a movie, not adapt the cartoon into a live-action cartoon. That is the mistake the Wachowski brothers made with Speed Racer and what I fear Dragonball will make the same mistake doing (and indeed, what most people who make cartoon-to-movie adaptations have done).

I have more faith in James Cameron’s Battle Angel (whenever he starts it) and Dreamworks’ plans to do Ghost in the Shell, since I think the people behind those movies generally know what works and what doesn’t, but that’s assuming studios don’t axe the trend to adapt anime or manga into movies by then based on directors seemingly not learning from mistakes of the past.

Part of the trick is choosing an anime or manga which can be successfully translated into a movie. Right now, the trend seems to be picking the most well known series without really thinking “is this actually going to translate well?”

It would have been nice had Speed Racer started this trend off well, but it didn’t and people are already asking if movies based off anime are dead before the trend even gets off the ground.

Of course, some in the anime community wouldn’t necessarily mind that, but I’m not really in that group. I generally like watching anime for the stories, in which case it doesn’t really matter what medium it is done in, as well as it is done well.

Would I look good in live action?

Anime does allow for some things to go on which wouldn’t work or would look silly in live-action to be sure (which is one of the things that makes adapting it into live-action problematic), but overall I don’t think I watch anime because it’s anime necessarily.

In any case, the first wave of anime adaptations seem to be done by people who are like “this is well known! Let’s turn it into a movie!” and then appear to either be making a live-action anime movie for themselves or “for the fans” without really thinking about whether such a movie will actually have broad appeal if made that way. As I said earlier – they’re adapting the cartoon, not the story. Until people learn the lesson that you have to make a movie instead of a live-action cartoon, I think any adaptations based on anime are going to continue to fail.

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7 thoughts on “Why Speed Racer failed (and why Dragonball probably will too)

  1. I agree with your assessment – get the story right first, then add in the other elements.

    I’d personally add that there are very few anime (or manga) that can be successfully adapted into a movie. Mainly this is a problem with time. 1 to 2 hours for a movie just isn’t long enough to cover any of the really good anime/mangas.

    I’d say the requirements for a successful movie from anime/manga would be:
    1. Simple but powerful story.
    2. Small cast of characters.
    3. Background environment that is easy to understand.

    I can’t think of any animes that fit those criteria. To get to an anime that fits, you’d pretty much have to rewrite it. That means you are back to getting the story to work first, which is why the story is so important.

  2. I think shows which are more episodic in nature or whose story can be boiled down to something simple enough to fit into a 2 hour span would probably work.

    An example of an episodic show which could maybe translate well is something like Cowboy Bebop I think, while an example of a show whose plot could be boiled down could be something like Haibane Renmei. (though I’m not assessing whether the actual plots of those shows would appeal to a wide audience)

    But yeah, it’d be difficult to take something like, say, Fruits Basket and boil it down to 2 hours because it would probably feel too rushed, while something like Evangelion basically requires all this stuff to happen for the ending to make sense, and it’s near impossible to stuff all of that into a single movie (even if ADV thinks it can).

    I think there are probably a lot of anime or manga which COULD be adapted, if people are willing to make the sacrifices to the story that would be necessary to cut it down, but you have to do that for almost anything you’re adapting.

    I mean, Harry Potter is a good example of something which has had to be extensively hacked down to size, but still works.

    But yes, this is partly why I say they have to adapt the story, because if the story sucks, the movie is going to suck. People seem to lose sight of that when they adapt things like cartoons or comics into movies sometimes.

  3. … well, GiTS is probably one of those anime which MIGHT be successfully adapted… but I don’t know if Spielburg and Dreamworks can do it. It is, at its core, a simple story about a person who is growing ever more alienated from their humanity and from society, and has the (relatively) small cast… and a cyberpunk world which is both familiar and strange.

    … but I almost KNOW that they’ll find a way to screw it up somehow, by having Motoko going on an orgy with Batou and emphasizing the subdued romance part at the eexpense of the rest of the story, and throw out any of the philosophical questions about what makes a person ‘human’.

  4. Hollywood movie adaptations should at the very least be entertaining, whether they throw most of the source material aside or not. Entertainment value and pacing are my only two criteria of judging adaptations by, since I’ve learnt that I can’t expect much from aspects in which the movie can fairly compare to the original. After all, movie adaptations of obscure source materials are made for completely different audiences. The GitS adaptation will most likely just borrow characters and the cyberpunkish world. What I’m getting at here is that anime won’t work as well as Marvel’s comics because anime fandom isn’t strong enough to carry its own voice of promotion to the mainstream consumer market. Hollywood is looking for is a fresh new marketing bumper sticker (since everyone is getting sick of Marvel), and they’re not getting much of a bumper sticker with anime.

  5. Miha: The problem here is that the built-in fanbase they’re trying to tap by borrowing the characters and settings, as Marvel did with its movies, is going to be the worst sort of critic. If the movie’s bad but appeals to them, they’ve got a cult favorite which MAY be usable for cross-marketing other products. If the movie’s good and doesn’t appeal to the built-in fanbase (Men in Black), then it may develop a whole new one as some novel adaptations do. If it’s bad AND doesn’t appeal to the built-in fanbase because of all the changes (example: Super Mario Brothers the Movie, Street Fighter the Movie, Legion of Extraordinary Gentlemen)…. then it’s dead in the water and a drag on the films of that same type that follow it.

    Video Game Movies are a prime example of this, in my books – the only good one was Mortal Kombat.. and then they decided to change more things around, which resulted in Annihilation and that third movie whose name I’ve blotted out from memory. The first was entertaining, even if it did muck around with the story and setting. The second reminded me of Street Fighter the Movie… the film so bad that some people joke that it killed Raul Julia from disappointment.

  6. DBZ the Movie will absolutely be a suck film, next year.

    I remember the Street Fighter film… it did suck… but Van Dam was cool being Guile. heh.

    oh yeah, I pray that Code Geass would not be adapted as a film. fcuk them if that’ll happen. :((

  7. Having the right crew to create something from anime or graphic novel or just novel I think is more important as well as the script.

    I believe that either focusing on the character or the story works just fine, the problem is telling your work on screen so its easy to understand and works well with the current times more importantly.

    You all will just have to get used to the fact that FOX sucks but more importantly American Points of Views are nearly garbage. Just recently batman has done wonderfully as far as giving a good show but nothing much previously and if you see how they destroyed dragon ball by adding terrible soundtrack, translation, censorship and voice acting to the animated show, what makes you think that the movie will be any better?

    American Entertainment is too distorted by politics, conservatism and money and basically unable to embrace the imagination, creativity, and cultural freedoms of other countries as far as Anime goes.

    I’ll give Dragon ball Evolution a 10/10 for good “American” Entertainment.

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